As a child, I spent Christmas Eves at a family farmhouse petting horses, my hands sticky from candy canes, pine needles and peppermint fingers. Late at night, I’d curl into the backseat of our olive Pinto, as my parents pointed out the prettiest — and tackiest — holiday lights. As he carried me to bed, my father would whisper that Rudolph’s shiny red nose was guiding Santa’s sleigh to our rooftop. He made me believe in magic before I knew that magic can make people disappear.
I honor holiday traditions like holy ghosts, desperately trying to DIY the past into the present. I’ve been told that my handmade wrapping is too pretty to open. I bake my stepmother’s tea cookie and magic bars just like she did. White lights adorn my blue fir Christmas tree. Chocolate Santas with hollow bellies are a sacrilege. I feel anxiety rise in my chest when my significant other says that the holidays aren’t a big deal and search for words to convince him that we must tree-trim and gift-wrap our way to happiness.
And I ask myself: Why do we embrace traditions even if they are more bitter than sweet? Does it truly bring us joy to have such great expectations for a season designed for full families gathered by the fire?
I was adopted by a family whose love for me changed like the weather, pure white snowstorms of affection followed by gray January days. I was an expensive investment, purchased to fit in with the rest of the nuclear families in my affluent hometown. A few years later, my parents divorced, which solidified my role as something to be fought over yet never valued. It was more than a sense of not belonging; they constantly reminded me that I was an outsider, that they could return me without a sales receipt, to whom or where I didn’t know, and, at 12, I was too afraid to ask. The idea that I didn’t belong with them — or anyone — was terrifying and very real. But Christmases throughout my childhood were filled with holiday magic where my stocking was lovingly hung next to everyone else’s. It was the kind of consistency that I yearned for the rest of the year, and something that disappeared in my adulthood.
Every year at this time, we are asked to find peace, to be thankful and to forgive. But the holidays can strike fear and sadness in the hearts of those of us who grew up without our parents or with complicated relationships with them. While others are overwhelmed with gifting and travel plans, we find ourselves with so much to give but uncertain about whom to offer ourselves to.
This year, I was reminded of a story I heard about the beloved 1964 animated television special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. In the show, Rudolph, Hermey the elf and their fellow traveler Yukon Cornelius promise to return to the Island of Misfit Toys so Santa can find those who have been discarded or left behind new homes. But in the original version, the toys are forgotten.
In a 2003 interview with the show’s producer, Arthur Rankin Jr., Rick Goldschmidt, author of The Making of the Rankin/Bass Holiday Classic: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, chimed in from the audience to explain that a scene was added where Rudolph makes good on his promise, guiding Santa’s sleigh to the island to save the misfits, after viewers raised their crayons in protest for the abandoned toys when the special first aired. The need to be loved was not lost upon them.
I’ve learned that as people like me grow older, some of us settle for less because we’ve learned to manage without that unconditional love from our first caretakers. We find chosen family, those who may love us in the necessary ways that were sometimes lost upon our mothers and fathers. Some of us have created our own families, ones that we hold on to too tightly, but having a partner or children doesn’t erase the desire for all that never was. We long to be young again.
It’s hard to ignore the gift guides for moms, dads, siblings and grandparents. The deluge of last-minute shopping emails assuring they’ve got us covered. People speed-racing their metal shopping carts around departments stores with Santa-sized lists for their family members. We envy them; we too are waiting in a kind of line, ready to be sons and daughters again.
Rankin Jr., Rudolph‘s producer, also revealed in that 2003 interview that Dolly, a redheaded rag doll on the Island of Misfit Toys, suffered from psychological issues. Because she was different, he said, she deemed herself unlovable. Before Santa and his sleigh arrive in the revised version, Dolly laments, “I haven’t any dreams left to dream.” I think, though, that this is actually a common misunderstanding of the emotions of someone who has been abandoned or feels estranged. I cannot speak for everyone, but in my experience, over time, the struggle is knowing that you are lovable — there is evidence all around you — and yet those who you wish loved you unconditionally do not. I’ve found that the trick is to grow comfortable with that knowledge, and to see that our own love can be rerouted to those who will love us back without hesitation.
That is my holiday wish for my brothers and sisters with invisible parents. I hope you are gifted with the understanding that the desire to be loved by our parents may never go away or get easier with age. I want you to know that you are not alone. If the season is not merry, it’s okay to step away from the twinkling lights. It’s okay to deck your halls with complicated arrangements and bake your way into the new year. It’s okay to honor your history or leave it in the past. May you find home wherever you are and know that some magic is worth believing in.